Residents struggle to put their lives back together after 'ruthless' wildfires

Two months after flames ravaged communities across B.C., residents are piecing together their lives from the ashes and struggling to rebuild.

2 months after a state of emergency was declared, communities are trying to get back to normal

Raging wildfires have charred over a million hectares of land across B.C. since April 1. (Tina Lovgreen/CBC)

Two months after flames ravaged communities across B.C., residents are piecing together their lives from the ashes and struggling to rebuild. 

Loon Lake resident Karla Hein was one of thousands who, when put to the test, showed their resiliency.                           

A knock on the door in the dead of night                            

The knock came at three in the morning.

Karla Hein opened the door to find an RCMP officer at her doorstep — for  the second time.

The first time she was forced from her home was on July 14.

Karla Hein, 46, holds her beloved horse at a friend's farm in Kamloops in July 2017. A day before, she and her mother fled flames with a dozen horses. (Tina Lovgreen/CBC)

The province had declared a state of emergency the week before and homes on the Ashcroft Indian Reserve and in Boston Flats had already been devoured by flames.

Now, the Ashcroft fire — renamed the Elephant Hill Fire — was closing in on her house, 18 kilometres from Loon Lake.

Hein and her mother, who have spent their entire lives raising show horses, had been on alert for seven days.

Now, It was time to scramble.

"You look around your house and you can't prioritize what's important and what's not. Everything's important because it's yours and you own it," said Hein.

Kelly Kennedy, a friend of Hein's, heard the news and began racing over from Kamloops with more trailers to rescue the nearly dozen horses.

RCMP officers gave them 10 minutes to go in and load up trailers with their animals and leave.

With embers dancing in the red sky, they drove out in a police escort.

"It was a highway through hell." 

Hein and her mother — along with 26 other evacuees and 100 animals — spent two weeks on Kennedy's 43 acre farm, three kilometres from the Kamloops Airport before returning home.

They'd only been home 36 hours when the RCMP came knocking on their door again.

"The fire had turned around ... and was coming back for a second swipe at us," she said.

This time they refused to go.

"It's too stressful having to leave and not knowing if you're coming home to anything," said Hein.

"Out of all this, my mom lost about 25 pounds and I've lost 35."

It was a cruel welcome for residents after the blaze whipped through their communities. (Tina Lovgreen/CBC)

They were on lockdown in their home for 18 days.

If they left, they wouldn't be allowed back in. Army trucks and brigades blocked off the roads.

They relied on a neighbour, who was volunteering with the local firefighters to sneak food in for them, sending their grocery list via text .The neighbour would come grab their debit cards and drop off milk, cream and whatever else they needed.

Contract firefighter Dean Elmore has been battling fires for 14 years. (Tina Lovgreen/CBC)

At their peak, the relentless wildfires forced the evacuation of more than 45,000 people, charred over a million hectares of land and destroyed more than 400 structures provincewide.

"I've never really been on a fire where you drive for one or two hours right through burned landscapes. It's big," said Dean Elmore, a veteran contract firefighter.

Remnants of fire retardant stain stretches of roads. (Tina Lovgreen/CBC)
The Elephant Hill fire, which was human-caused, whipped through the cemetery at the Ashcroft Indian Reserve in July. (Tina Lovgreen/CBC)
Part of the rebuilding will include clean up of fire retardant that was sprayed during firefighting efforts. (Tina Lovgreen/CBC)

Elmore spent weeks fighting the Spokin Lake fire 20 kilometres east of Williams Lake and is going to the Hanceville fire next where at least 33 structures have been destroyed.

"It's just the most ruthless thing you can imagine," he said.

Firefighters came from across the province and the country.

They came from Australia, New Zealand, United States and, for the first time-ever, from Mexico.

In Loon Lake, for the first little bit, the local volunteer firefighters were on their own as resources were stretched thin.

"It was pretty spooky actually," said Jeff Harrison, who has been a volunteer firefighter for two years.

"We were on our own in here, without any source of power or telephone access … the conditions were pretty difficult for those first two and half weeks."

They gathered in people's homes. With no hot water or electricity, they relied on flashlights and generators.

"It was traumatic in that it was emotional, because you know, you're feeling the weight of the community on your shoulders having to make sure that you're protecting all the rest of the structures that were remaining."

An aerial view of the devastation near Williams Lake shows reveals how much forest has been charred. (Tina Lovgreen/CBC)

Harrison said the fire destroyed 60 structures in the area, including the fire hall that was built in the 1980s.

"There is no rhyme or reason to it," he said.

The Evergreen Fishing Resort lost many cabins, and the owners are still not ready to speak about their loss.

But even businesses that were spared structural loss have been hit hard financially.

"All the resorts are in the same boat as us. We're worried about the future," said Laurie Ladoski, with the family-owned HiHium Lake Fishing.

"There's nothing to look at anymore. It's just ugly."

A resident watches the Elephant Hill from Clinton, B.C. The fire has been tormenting residents since July 6 when it was first discovered. It was last estimated at close to 200,000 hectares. (Tina Lovgreen/CBC)

On Tuesday, the federal and provincial governments announced $20 million to help farmers and ranchers who have suffered massive damage to their lands and livestock. 

Businesses in Williams Lake are struggling to find people to fill jobs, as many found work elsewhere during the evacuation orders and decided not to come back. 

Despite firefighters efforts to drench the burning hills, much of the beauty of the forests has been lost. (Tina Lovgreen/CBC)

A week into September, fires are still popping up across the province. Four new fires started on Monday. Despite rain forecast for the end of week, the outlook is grim. Firefighters expect to be working well into October.

"Things will green up and there will be a scar on the landscape for many years to come. But, hopefully, people's memories will stay and they will rebuild their lives," said Harrison. 

At it's peak, 45,000 people were evacuated from their homes. There are still roughly 20 evacuation orders in place across B.C. (Tina Lovgreen/CBC)

As for Hein and others returning home, they're taking it day by day. 

Cleaning off the soot and fire retardant that has stained their homes, longing for the snow to fall to mask the devastation.